BB King's passing last week had the world of rock in deep mourning. King was the last of the great bluesmen, the soul survivor of the gang who, along with Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Howlin' Wolf, epitomized the sound of the 1920s Mississippi Delta. With a sparkling personality, colorful personal life (15 children with 15 different women), and a lifelong commitment to all his 'Lucilles', King attracted fans across the globe. Still touring the world well into his 80s ("I never use that word, retire"), he lived for the blues and what they stood for, his voice captivating audiences worldwide.
The blues were where rock 'n' roll began back in the 60s, the sound that inspired artists such as the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan to change the status quo and introduce the world to a new phenomenon: rhythm 'n' blues. The Stones were originally inspired by the deep depths of the blues, with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards initially reconciling their friendship after Richards spotted Jagger with a cherished Chuck Berry vinyl outside a local train station in their mid-teens. From then on, the band lived, breathed and worshiped the genre, teaching themselves everything and anything that lead to the sound. In Richards' autobiography, Life, he reflects on the bands' early days where they would play tracks on repeat, day after day, devoted to the task of learning the riffs of the greats. It was the Stones who reintroduced America to the blues, controversially releasing Little Red Rooster, a blues inspired LP that, although their record company doubted as a choice at the time, nevertheless shot to the top of the charts. Similarly, Clapton was taken by the style and aspired to follow the likes of Muddy Waters. He, along with the Stones, eventually became good friends with the leader of the pack, King. In an emotional video tribute to his close friend, Clapton commented:
"This music is almost a thing of the past now and there are not many left that play it in the pure way that BB did. He was a beacon for all of us who loved this kind of music... If you're not familiar with his work," he added, "then I would encourage you to go out and find an album called Live at the Regal, which is where it all really started for me as a young player."
Jagger was influenced by the same stuff: "The record we all had when we were young was Live at the Regal...," he commented, highlighting where his era found their inspiration.
The blues that King sang emerged from a tough upbringing and a life lived through the civil rights battle that eclipsed America in the 1960s. The Thrill is Gone is said to be in memory of one of King's failed marriages, while Why I Sing the Blues was written in reflection of his troubled early start in life. Every song he performed was born from of a personal memory or experience. In 2015, with the likes of Clapton, Dylan and the Stones still on stage, such devotees are collectively ensuring that the blues beacon remains alight. But with the passing of such a legend in the business, can the blues live on? King never believed an end was in sight: "So long as people still have problems, the blues can never die. If you can't get your songs to people one way, you have to find another..."